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The 42-year-old filmmaker’s breakthrough feature Happy Hour wowed international art house fans in 2015, but his 2018 Cannes competition entry Asako I & II received a markedly mixed reception, with some praising the director’s clarity of vision and others calling it a misfire.
As of late, Hamaguchi is riding high on the international festival circuit. He co-wrote Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s period thriller Wife of a Spy, which won the best director award at the 2020 Venice Film Festival; and his 2021 omnibus feature Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which tells three distinct stories about contemporary Japanese women, was a hit at the Berlinale, winning the Silver Bear jury prize.
The rising auteur is back in the Cannes festival’s main competition this year with contemporary drama Drive My Car, an adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name. The film stars Hidetoshi Nishijima (Dolls) as Yusuke Kafuku, a stage actor and director coping with the sudden death of his enigmatic wife. Traveling to Hiroshima to direct a performance of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, a gruff, silent young woman is assigned to act as his chauffeur, ferrying him around the city in his bright red Saab 900. During the rides an uncanny connection emerges between the two, with secrets and confessions revealed.
Diaphana Distribution has acquired rights to the film in France and The Match Factory is handling international sales in Cannes.
On the eve of the festival, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Hamaguchi in Tokyo to discuss how he won the rights to adapt Murakami’s work, his use of timeless Chekov dialog in the finished film and the conversational magic of long car rides.
What drew you to this particular Haruki Murakami short story as source material for a film adaptation? Are you personally a big Murakami fan?
Well, there are people here in Japan who call themselves Haruki-ists — hardcore Haruki Murakami fans. I can’t say I’m quite that, but I have read his work and he’s a writer I like very much.
But I actually wasn’t the one who originated the idea of this project. My producer, Akihisa Yamamoto, called me up and said, “Hey, why don’t we adapt a Haruki Murakami story?” I thought it was an interesting idea, and we agreed that it would be easier to adapt one of his short stories rather than a full novel, so we started working on development with that in mind. I was actually having a hard time with it until I remembered Drive My Car, which is the one that we settled on. I remembered back when I first read it thinking that it had some commonalities with my own works.
First of all, the characters appealed to me. So there’s Kafuku, the main character, and Misaki, who’s the driver. They’re not people who initially make their emotions very apparent. They’re the kind of people who are reluctant to talk about their feelings. However, in the car, in this closed space, they begin to open up about their internal thoughts, their internal lives.
In the past, I’ve worked on documentary films based in Japan’s Tohoku region. While I was doing that, I spent a lot of time moving around in cars, and I felt this experience too — how the car can encourage you to open up in an interesting way. When two people are facing each other, there is the potential for a kind of emotional truth to come out, but I think it actually happens very rarely. The idea of actually seeing each other, really truly seeing each other, that doesn’t happen so often. But in the car — with one person in the driver’s seat and another in a passenger’s seat — I think there’s something to be said about looking away from each other, but both facing the same goal and destination. Together, that allows for a certain kind of honesty to come out in the conversation. People might find they’re able to say things that they would never discuss if they were looking straight at each other.
I suppose confession booths have screens. The car as modern confession booth?
Yes! But like I said, I feel that the feeling of facing the same direction, moving towards the same goal is also important.
As a filmmaker, the idea of creating words and movement together is something that I deal with a lot in my work. So it was really easy for me to imagine what the story would look like as a film adaptation.
My films have a lot of dialog in them. That’s just a characteristic of mine. Ever since I was in my 20s, when I first started making films, that was the only way I could conceive of making a movie. But this characteristic does have its weaknesses, and I have to look for ways to compensate for it.
I like to write in a way that’s not very direct. There’s a different axis that appears when what’s actually being spoken about in the dialog is different from what’s actually happening in the scene. And so that creates a sort of distance, in my opinion, of what the direct appeal of a film can be.
Words and dialog on their own aren’t necessarily very appealing in a film. But cinema is about movement, so in a very simple way, once you put these ideas into a mode of transportation — a train, a car etc. — suddenly it’s all more watchable. Suddenly there’s the sense of a destination that arises. Also, by having the characters spend a lot of time in one space, I also realized that the changes in their relationship become more visible against that continuous backdrop.
So, I started thinking about these things in order to compensate for a weakness that I felt, but they also create interesting possibilities.
Another commonality between my interests and Murakami’s story was the theme of the relationship between truth and performance. For example, Kafuku, through acting, he’s able to actually make apparent something that could only appear because he is performing. That’s something that I am very interested in, this idea of a form of truth that only emerges through acting. So I was very drawn to this story because the characters themselves are actors, so I was able to deal with these ideas very directly and naturally.
Did you interact with Murakami much during the adaptation process?
No, I’ve actually never met him. I had heard from friends in the industry that it’s very difficult to be granted rights to adapt a Murakami work. So I figured I would need to be really clear about what direction I hoped to take with his story. So I wrote him a letter with a very detailed description of the plot and all of my intentions. I waited quite a while to hear back, and finally I got a simple reply saying that I had his okay. Every time the script changed during the filmmaking process, I sent him another letter reporting the alterations. I never received a personal message in any way, just a simple indication of okay. I don’t think he’s actually even seen the film yet. What I have been told is that he will simply go see it when it starts playing at a theater near him in Tokyo.
So how did you approach the challenge of actually expanding his short story into a feature?
Well, first of all, the original short story is only 50 pages long, which was not enough material to create a feature. So I knew I needed to expand it. Knowing that getting Murakami’s approval would be vital part of the process, I felt I couldn’t just make a lot of additions and take liberties that might risk alienating him in some way. So, what I did first was reread the other short stories that accompany Drive My Car in his collection Men Without Women. I realized that there are a lot of thematic commonalities between the stories, so I thought that, perhaps instead of inventing new material, I could use elements from these other stories and string them together to an extent. For the Haruki-ists, you will see I used key pieces from the stories Scheherazade and Kino. Then I also incorporated more from Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, which plays a smaller part in Murakami’s original version of Drive My Car.
The language that appears in the dialog of literature tends to be very different from the words that we actually hear coming out of real people’s mouths in everyday life. So in that sense, I rarely pulled directly from the story collection. So in that sense, I didn’t really mimic Murakami’s style. But I figured I could still somehow arrive at where Murakami’s stories live, throughout the whole process.
As a simple writing challenge, the way you integrate all of this material is pretty astonishing in the finished film. As you said, you use much more of the original Chekhov. Since the character Kafuku is first performing Uncle Vanya, and then later directing it, we constantly hear the original dialog being played over a cassette tape that he uses to practice his lines, and in various instances in which it is performed. But it also becomes this incredibly elegant meta-commentary on what’s happening in the characters’ emotional worlds from moment to moment. When you read a short story, so much of a character’s inner world is accessible to you in a way that isn’t possible in a film, and it seemed like you were using this technique as a clever way to compensate for that. How did you come to this idea of using the Chekov material as a meta-textual window into the characters?
Well, I’m very happy to hear your thoughts about that. In the original story, there’s only one instance where Vanya’s Uncle is directly quoted, so this was one aspect where I really did a lot of expanding. Simply put, I initially decided to use Uncle Vanya because it was already in the original, so I felt it was available to me. I had read it before and I’d also seen the play performed; but I reread it again and I was very surprised by how interesting the play itself is, especially Vanya’s dialog. As I was reading the dialog aloud over and over, it seemed to me to express a lot of what modern Japanese people go through in their inner lives today — which is something I didn’t expect.
So I felt that Vanya’s dialog posed new possibilities for revealing the inner life of Kafuku’s character. Yet, the dialog had the ability to leave some ambiguity there, so I could illustrate different facets and dimensions, as his character goes through changes. Mostly, I was taken by how strong and timeless Chekov’s dialog is.
Plot points in your work often seem to be almost deliberately absurd. Especially in your previous film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, there were a lot of improbable coincidences, which in lesser writing would seem clumsy or lazy. But you seem to almost use these things like challenges to be overcome by the strength of the realism of your dialog. Drive My Car has fewer of these convenient plot points, but there are still a couple that viewers will recognize right away — one tragic, another hilarious.
To use a Japanese framing of things, I think there’s a certain sense of convenience in including these coincidences. But as you said, I think there is a truth to the idea that I include these things as a challenge to myself.
As we’ve talked about, I use a lot of dialog in my work. And when there is dialog, there’s a real sense of someone saying one thing, and then someone reacting to it. There’s a relationship that appears, in this back and forth, conversational cause and effect. When things progress in that way, through a conversation, it’s not so easy to change direction very suddenly. Because the dialog needs to stay convincing, I need something else to be plopped in in order to drive the story — to make it jump somewhere else. So in that sense, I think it’s out of convenience that I include these surprising new elements.
As you said, in my previous film Wheel of Fortune, I took this further. I really realized that as long as you make sure that there is a sturdy reality elsewhere, I can create quite surprising coincidences — and the story won’t actually collapse. As a storyteller, I think conversational reality is more important to me. After all, shocking events and coincidences do happen all the time in life. I found in making that previous film that you can get away with these coincidences as long as it’s supported by the strength of the film’s other elements. And I like to have some illogic in the film somewhere — to break the idea of reality — to pursue a different kind of truth.
One of the other really compelling elements of the new film is the character Kafuku’s multilingual approach to theater. As an actor and director, he’s a devotee of a form of theater where all of the chapters are played by actors speaking different languages, so the actors can’t actually understand one another, and the dialog is subtitled in real time for the audience. Are you comfortable sharing what your intentions were there?
The idea of a multilingual theater does something similar to what we were just discussing about jarring coincidences.
As I mentioned, in dialog, one character says their lines and then another character responds more of less logically. However, when it’s done by people speaking two different languages, it shouldn’t actually quite work. People shouldn’t actually be able to understand each other. But by watching a story still somehow manifest in this way, I felt that I am able to break a sense of reality for the audience, or at least make that sense of reality waver for them, as they watch this still play out somehow between languages.
Were your actors actually multilingual in the same way that the actors performing the play within the film are?
Yes, my cast really were multilingual in the same way that you see in the film. The actor who plays the character Ryu, he actually spoke a little bit of Japanese. But otherwise, most of the cast just spoke their mother tongue.
So, by breaking the reality of conversation, by using multiple languages with actors who usually can’t understand each other, is the idea to focus the audience’s attention on the writing or the physical qualities of their performance?
When I was making this film, just as you see the characters do in their rehearsal of the play, we had them do many readings. We had them repeat the actual script over and over, each actor speaking their own language. And as you do that, what the actors are doing is that they’re hearing each other. The sound becomes the really important element in understanding what people are saying. But at the same time, what’s going on is that sound becomes the starting point, but then they understand the words through their own mother tongue, from their knowledge of the script. It’s a richer way of accessing the script.
The other part that becomes important is the body. They start to have to focus on how the body of the other person is moving. And by doing that, the body becomes the only way to know how to react to the other person. So it becomes possible that they’re no longer performing a reaction; there’s a real reaction that’s going on through the necessity of observing and focusing on the other actor’s body.
I believe that these circumstances of multilingual performance create the possibility for a special kind of emotional truth to arise.
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